The lack of black and brown visibility in a simple Google search for breast cancer reconstructive surgery is just a microcosm of the ways that black women are left out of the conversation around breast cancer and indicative of black women’s bodies being highly sexualized and at the same time disposable.
A Google search was not the first time I have not seen myself, us, represented in a subculture. As a queer black woman, it can be an uphill battle finding community in even what is claimed to be the most diverse city in America, New York City.
My decision to attend Afropunk this year topless was to provide the visibility that I wanted to see and that we need. Afropunk has been a festival I have attended for the past six years (even on chemo one of those years). Punk to me means standing in your truth and resisting white supremacist, patriarchal notions of existence.
I wanted people to see me such that they saw themselves, their mothers, lovers and friends. I wanted people to see me and remember that they need to check their breasts regardless of their age. I was diagnosed at 28 and although major cancer non-profits exist to provide visibility for cancer at young ages, I still had doctors surprised by my diagnosis, given my age.
I went topless at Afropunk to challenge the notion that “female-bodied” people can’t take their shirt off due to some androcentric, understated rule that it should not happen in public. I took my shirt off at Afropunk to not only to be seen as a cancer warrior, but to reclaim my sexuality.
Breast cancer patients are so often painted as walking inspirational beings, thus effacing any opportunity to be seen as sexy or erotic. I resist the notion that because my nipples are now long, stunning scars I am no longer a sexual being. It never went away.
Although I live 15 minutes away from Barry Commodore Park, I commuted to the festival wearing a top and vacillated between taking my top off and abandoning the idea altogether. All of my friends knew that I planned to attend topless, but I warned them that I might not be able to do it. Maybe I would be too scared at what people would say, the pervasiveness of respectability politics in black spaces or perhaps I wouldn’t be able to bare the attention.
As I walked around the park topless, I remember feeling this sense of familiarity. I did not look like everyone else, but that was familiar. People looked at me strange, but that was also familiar. Being topless at a festival after a double mastectomy was just a metaphor for my experiences as a black queer woman. In essence, standing topless was not difficult, just familiar. Queer, cancer and black: a lot of intersections of alone.
Each day of the festival, I remembered that me taking my top off had very little to do with me. That I was giving myself away to awareness, to my community and in honor of my Mom who died of breast cancer when I was 13 and was the epitome of generosity and consistent resistance to conventional notions of cancer, of any conventions.